Characters this chapter: Howl, Michael, Sophie, Percival (with brief cameos by Mari, Megan, and Neil Parry)

Rating:T

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Chapter 26: Tea Party of the Damned

In his bedroom, Howell had just enough energy to set his tea by the bedside and cast a spell exchanging his grey and scarlet suit for his long nightgown before falling into bed. Lying flat on his back, he found his chest so congested it was difficult to breathe. Howell's answer was to prop himself up with all twenty of his dusty pillows. It made breathing a bit easier and afforded a vantage point from which to watch the depressing drizzle that had caused this cold from his window.

Still he could not quite summon the necessary peace of mind to fall asleep. And he hated to think of his nose dribbling onto the pillows. So he simply lay there for a time feeling sorry for himself, and thinking.

Howell decided he had done his duty by Michael going to make his excuses and apologies to the other Lettie and Mrs. Fairfax this morning. And whereas the old lady did not seem to be holding a grudge at all against him any longer, Sophie's sister could hardly have been more hostile toward him. And the things she'd said!

Oddly enough, Howell hadn't really been bothered by it much. He'd been called worse, that was certain. But what had concerned him was Lettie's threat to come between Sophie and himself. Howell thought it best for his emotional well-being not to estimate the possibilities of such an attempt being successful.

Likewise, going to Wales to look after his family seemed to have done more harm than good. Just what had it earned him? His masculinity being questioned by his nephew, a date with a fire demon who was hoping to kill him, and a terrible cold. All told, Howell felt very unappreciated. All that hard work and effort, and nary a thank you to be found. Just insults.

Why, even now he was being ignored on his deathbed. Howell pictured what the scene must be downstairs, Sophie sewing happily away in front of the fire, hoping his death would come soon, and Michael sitting idly by, telling her jokes. Perhaps he and Calcifer were poking fun at Howell again as they had at breakfast the day before.

He simply could not bear the thought. Bother the lot of them. Howell was not about to let them forget he existed.

Knowing from years of experience at manipulation that guilt could work wonders, Howell decided to play a game the objective of which was to see how quickly someone would come to his aid. He made sure the frog was solidly in his throat and did a soft test-run or two before calling out to those traitors ignoring him downstairs. "Help me, someone!" he warbled pathetically. "I'm dying of neglect up here!" From the sounds of the feet on the stairs, it was Michael, which was a bit disappointing, but not surprising. It was seven seconds before his head appeared round the door. Howell counted.

"What can I do?" he asked.

"I think," Howell sighed, melodramatically, laying a lacy sleeve to his clammy forehead, "this tea will do me no good without some lemon to help clear my sinuses."

Michael hesitated, uncertain. "Lemon?" He wrung his hands. "I'll ask Sophie if we have any."

"Don't bother," Howell told him. "She'll only give you something like alum, instead."

"Calm down, Howl," Michael said, seeing his self-pitying frown. "She doesn't want you dead."

"Oh doesn't she?" Howell asked in a martyred tone. Michael opened his mouth to reply, when Howell went on. "Did you hear the way she spoke to me a moment ago? Saying I deserved this cold. As if anyone deserves a cold! I'm quite unloved in this house, Michael."

"That's not true," his apprentice said, looking concerned. Just then, their little play was interrupted by a pounding on the door. Michael jumped, and Howell was suddenly deep beneath his blankets. The pounding continued for what seemed an eternity.

By the end, Howell poked his head out and became annoyed. "How inconsiderate!" he exclaimed. "Every business has to be closed SOMEtimes. It's not as if we had an appointment with anyone today." He looked over at Michael, suddenly curious. "Did we?"

Michael poked his head out from inside Howell's shoe closet. "No. No one asked for spells yesterday." The rude person at the door gave it one last irate bang, sending Michael darting straight back into the closet.

"Careful of those shoe trees!" Howell croaked. "Some of those are irreplaceable." When there were no further hammerings, his apprentice crept back out.

"Er. Anyway," Michael said. "I'll go see about that lemon."

"And honey!" Howell called out as he was almost out of the room. "I can't drink sour tea."

Michael nodded and hurried off before Howell could ask for anything else. When he came back 320 seconds later - Howell counted - Michael handed over the items and made as if to leave immediately again.

Unfortunately for him, Howell was still bored. "Michael, what are you doing?"

His apprentice turned around, looking as if he were in trouble. "Working on that homework spell we got back."

"Oh."

"Let me know if you need anything else." And he turned to go again.

"Actually," Howell delayed him again. "Now that you ask, I think I shall need a book to read. I'm too sick to sleep."

Michael turned and looked pointedly at the bookcase not an arm's length from the bedside. "Which book?"

"Not those." Howell felt finicky. "One from downstairs."

"All right." Michael was not near exhausted yet. "Which one?"

"The Duchess of Malfy. I feel like reading about faithful women." His apprentice made no comment, but disappeared downstairs once more. He was back 200 seconds later.

"Here you are."

"You knew right where it was."

Michael beamed. "I looked at it, once. I thought it was some book on manners, and the cover intrigued me."

"But then you found out it was a play," Howell smiled wanly. Michael looked sheepish and nodded. "You know you can borrow any of my non-spell books anytime you like."

His apprentice acquired the awkward look of the barely-literate who are not at all interested in literature, politely nodding in acknowledgement of the offer he would never take advantage of. As he left once more, Howell wondered if he should talk to Calcifer about just what texts he'd utilised in teaching Michael to read. Then he decided it wasn't worth the argument.

For a brief moment, Howell experienced panic that perhaps Sophie was just as uninterested in fine literature as Michael. What a dull marriage that would be. Then he remembered that Lettie was not going to let them marry in any case, and dropped the line of thought all together, narrowly dodging a wave of hopelessness.

When Howell opened the book and attempted to read the scene where Ferdinand gives the Duchess what for, his head swam, as did the words across the page. He had to abandon his intent to read, which was most disappointing. Why was it that when you were sick in bed - which was the perfect time to do a bit of leisure reading - you never could seem to manage it, or if you did, you couldn't enjoy it? That seemed awfully unfair somehow.

Howell gazed out the window at the wet swing and rusty swing set, feeling forlorn. He took a sip of his newly-infused-with-lemon tea and honey, cleverly managing to get it down the wrong way. Howell thought perhaps he should have sat up to drink, but it was too late now as he was preoccupied choking, coughing, and getting scalding tea onto his bedspread and nightgown in the process.

After he'd coughed for what seemed to be a good five minutes, Howell's windpipe was clear once more, and he could breathe properly. Also, Michael was in the doorway, looking concerned. "Are you all right?"

"No," Howell pouted. "I'm sick. I may be dying."

"I don't think you're dying," Michael offered tentatively.

"Well, thank you for the sympathy!" Howell stared out the window, feeling martyred.

"Er..." Michael paused, trying to think of how to salvage the situation. "I'll go get you some cough mixture," he offered finally before dashing back down the stairs.

Howell did not really feel he had a proper cough, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to take something preventatively. When Michael returned with the bottle, extending it like a peace offering, Howell stared at it. "What's wrong?" Michael asked.

"You forgot the spoon. How am I supposed to take it without a spoon?"

"Oh. Er..." Michael half-pointed discreetly to the spoon resting on Howell's tea saucer.

"I can't use that spoon," Howell explained, enjoying being a brat. "Then my tea would taste like cough mixture."

Michael was beginning to look put-upon, but he apologised and ran back downstairs for a spoon. Howell thought his apprentice's habits likely harked back to the days when there might only be one clean spoon in the house. But now Sophie was with them they didn't have that problem anymore. And Howell was bloody well going to use as many spoons as he liked. He was sick, after all, the perfect excuse to be unreasonable.

His apprentice returned in 350 seconds, no doubt having stopped to cast a meaningful glance at Calcifer, or tell Sophie how unreasonable Howell as being. Howell cherished a vague hope she would come up and scold him for it, but it was just Michael who returned. "Here," he said, offering the spoon to him handle-first, like a sword.

"Thank you, Michael."

"You're welcome." Though his tone did not sound as if Howell was welcome.

For this reason, after Michael left Howell decided to give him a few minutes to calm down. He took a spoonful of cough mixture, screwing his face up. No matter how congested he was, Howell could always taste that dreadful stuff. If he didn't know better, he'd think it had been invented by a dark wizard. But the only pharmacist wizard Howell knew in his world was Ben Sullivan, and he wasn't making any more prescriptions or potions these days. Howell decidedly turned away from that dark subject, though it lingered like the bitter taste of cough mixture on his tongue.

Speaking of which, Howell felt no different after having taken it. No better or worse, save the vile taste lingering in his mouth. He decided that if he was to take medicine for his cold, he should perhaps address the problems he had rather than the ones he hadn't.

Howell called Michael back up and asked for nose drops. Those only helped for two seconds. And he noticed his throat more, after, so he called Michael again to bring him some throat pastilles. The throat pastilles made Howell's throat itch, and so he called for some gargle and a bowl to spit it into. Michael fulfilled all of these requests dutifully, but he no longer smiled or told Howell to call if he needed anything. The last trip, he made a rude gesture on his way out Howell doubted very much he'd been meant to see.

Of course, this only decided Howell on further harassment of his apprentice, of whom he next demanded a pen and paper, followed by three more books. By the end, Michael was quite red in the face, though whether his hue stemmed from all of his trips up and down the stairs or his irritation with Howell was not yet apparent. At least Howell's requests had given him sufficient excuse to ignore the frequent intervals of knocking on the front door. And Howell's nervousness at the sound only inspired him to think of more tasks for Michael to perform.

"Is that all?" Michael asked when he'd brought up the third book in five minutes.

Howell pretended to think about it. "Yes." And after a pause, "Thank you, Michael."

His apprentice nodded, looking exhausted, and stumbled back down the stairs.

Howell wrote three more lines of wobbly-handed poetry before calling for Michael again. This time, his apprentice looked ready to give him a piece of his mind. "Look, Howl--"

"Just one more thing, Michael." His apprentice looked wary. "One more thing, and I won't bother you until lunch."

"All right," Michael agreed. "What?"

"This tea is cold." Howell handed it to him. "Would you warm me another cup, and add an infusion of willowbark this time?"

Michael nodded. "No spitting in it!" Howell warned him.

His apprentice gave him an odd look. "Why would I do that?"

Such a kind soul. Of course such a thing would never have occurred to Michael, Howell realised. Those other souls in the house, however… "Well, then don't let Sophie do it, either," Howell warned.

Michael looked at him as if he were clearly losing his mind and left. When he returned with the willowbark tea, Howell thanked him and settled down to making a list of supplies he would need to move the castle tomorrow. He must have been tired, for in the middle of writing "chalk dust", he dozed off.

Howell awoke a short time later to find a nice, dark ink stain on his dusty blanket, and the dubious letters "lk" scrawled across his wrist. He sighed and cast a cleaning spell. Then his stomach rumbled. He rang the bell at his bedside, and Michael arrived in 30 seconds. Howell counted.

"Lunch?"

"Yes," said Howell. "I think I've had enough of warm liquids. A bacon sandwich sounds wonderful."

"Are you sure?" Michael looked at him dubiously.

"I haven't the flu, Michael."

"I'll ask Calcifer," he said, and disappeared back downstairs. Howell heard the faint murmurings of Michael bargaining with Sophie and Calcifer. Whatever he'd said must have worked, because he caught the smell of frying pork not long after, and his apprentice was back with a beautiful bacon and toast sandwich not half an hour later.

"I love you, Michael," Howell told him, his stomach rumbling loudly as he took the plate.

Michael looked at him warily. "I love you, too, Howell," he said, looking a bit embarrassed, and as though he was wondering if they were playing a game.

Howell took the first glorious bite of the crunchy, greasy sandwich. "I also love how you manage Sophie. Someday you must teach me how it's done."

Michael looked offended. "I don't 'manage' her, Howl. I just treat her like a normal person." He walked to the door and looked back, disapprovingly. "You should try it sometime."

Howell waved his sandwich in a cheeky salute. Alone once more, he finished his list of supplies, crunching away on his lunch. The only thing that would have made it better would've been some salt and vinegar crisps. Unfortunately, they hadn't invented crisps yet in Ingary. Pity.

Perhaps he would have to. Howell wondered with some amusement what Chrestomanci would have to say about changing culinary history in another world.

With his sandwich gone and belly full if vaguely queasy from all the grease, Howell settled into his blankets and wondered what else he could do for entertainment today. He was bored of harassing Michael, and his apprentice was not going to tolerate much more of it. Calcifer couldn't move from the hearth, and the only way he'd have any hope of getting Sophie to come upstairs was if Michael was gone.

"Michael!" Howell shouted, ringing the bell. His apprentice appeared in 45 seconds, after a slow and reluctant plod up the stairs. Howell counted. Michael's lips and fingers were shiny with the grease of his own sandwich.

"Yes, Howl?" he asked, sounding tired.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Have I interrupted your lunch?" Howell sounded all too delighted for the apology to be sincere.

Michael looked as if he were going to give a smart answer for a moment, but in the end, his shoulders drooped and he just sighed. "What do you need, Howl?"

Howell waved the list at him. "I thought you might like to go see your Lettie today." The young man perked up immediately, his half-eaten lunch forgotten. "Shall I add some baked goods to the list?" Howell said, thinking aloud.

"Nevermind," Michael said, enthusiastically. "I'll just ask her what's good today. She always gives me something to take home."

"Ah, the advantages of courting a baker."

"Chocolatier," Michael corrected. "She wants to specialise in the confections when she's done."

Howell considered on second thought, marrying into the Hatter family might not be so terribly bad. "Chocolate sounds delightful. See what she can do."

His apprentice nodded, taking the list. "And shall I ask about homes for in the village?"

Howell considered this. "I don't think there's any reason to start an official inquiry, but if you see any signs posted, or if your Lettie knows of anything..." he nodded, indicating this would be fine.

"Okay!" Michael chirped cheerfully, and turned to flee the castle.

"Michael!" Howell called after him. This was the exact sort of reason why male animals in rut were always being picked off by some large predator or other. Testosterone was hazardous to a man's health.

"Yes?" His apprentice's head appeared in the doorway, looking much less resentful of the delay this time.

"The Witch," Howell warned him, and watched the temporarily-forgotten fear return to the young man's face. "You'll need to be careful. Take one of the disguises."

But Michael was still frightened. "Will that be enough, you think?"

"I'll add a misdirection spell. It should be fine. She's not looking for you. But if you run into trouble, you know what to do." Michael nodded, solemn. Howell had taught him a spell that was the equivalent of an emergency flare long ago, just in case. "But I don't expect you'll have any trouble. I wouldn't move us to Market Chipping if I still thought the Witch had any interests there. I think she was satisfied with a job ill done when she cursed Sophie." He waved a hand at Michael, shooing him. "Now go on. Enjoy your Lettie."

Michael blushed a little and made a face. "That doesn't sound quite proper, Howl." Howell lay back on his mountain of pillows and pretended not to have heard. "Be back soon," Michael said softly, as if he were trying not to wake him.

Howell thought being ill really was the best excuse for most anything. He heard his apprentice go bouncing down the stairs, and then a murmur of voices as he no doubt explained to Sophie where he was going. The door shut behind Michael a minute later.

It seemed proper to Howell to wait a certain amount of time before he began his harassment of Sophie. It would hopefully lure her into a false sense of security and make things more fun later. Oddly, however, things did not quiet downstairs after Michael left.

Howell heard the sounds of quite a mess being made and wondered if Sophie had decided to clean again, or if she'd perhaps suddenly chosen to become a one-woman brass band. Then it sounded as though she were throwing things at the walls while muttering to herself.

He was curious what she was up to, but to ask would ruin his plans for general harassment. While deciding which he preferred, Howell's body was wracked by a most violent sneeze, and he wondered whether someone was cursing him again. He relaxed into his pillows and let his head swim for a bit. Apparently this cold was going to come with a headache. He could almost hear the pounding in his temples, but he felt too weak to go digging for aspirin. When Howell closed his eyes, he drifted into a restless sleep.

He dreamed he'd come down to breakfast in his dressing gown again, and Calcifer had laughed at him. Howell checked himself over but could not find what was so funny. He turned to yell at Calcifer to geroff it, only to find the fire demon perched at a long table, wearing a top hat with the size label tucked askew into the ribbon. He looked like...

"The Mad Hatter?" Howell asked in his dream.

"It's time for tea, you know," Calcifer told him. "And have you met my wife?" He motioned to the chair next to him in which Sophie was suddenly sitting. But it wasn't Sophie. It was some monstrous mishmash of Sophie and Violet's fire demon.

"Do sit down," Lettie told him, motioning to a chair. Howell was somewhat taken aback at her long, white rabbit ears and the accompanying one-piece, strapless bathing suit topped off by a cotton tail. "It's Tuesday, you know," she said, winking at him.

In the way you sometimes do in dreams, Howell found himself sitting in a chair without having sat down. The chair was hard and uncomfortable, as if the seat were made of metal.

"It's rude not to accept," Calcifer scolded him, oddly.

Howell found he couldn't summon any more words in response.

"What's wrong?" Not-Sophie asked him, leaning forward to pour his tea, which came out of the queer, mushroom-shaped teapot thick as mud. "Can't youspeak?" She stressed the last word, as if it were a cue.

A tall teapot further down the table that had been painted to look like the moving castle rattled a bit, and the top was pushed off by someone inside. A tiny Ben Sullivan poked his head out. Howell had no clue how he knew it was Ben Sullivan, for he had the head of a dog. His fur was white as snow, his ears a rusty crimson, like tainted blood. "Bow wow," he said very precisely and distinctly, as if addressing the House of Lords. "Bow wow."

"It's Tuesday, you know," Lettie said again, and smiled before reaching over to lay her hand on Howell's knee. He jerked away in surprise - or would have, but found he couldn't move. The hard metal chair on which he was sitting seemed to have sprouted shackles on the armrests, and Howell was fastened in.

"Off with his head!" came the sound of Violet's voice from behind him. Howell tried to turn round to face her, but just as he saw a blurry shape in the corner of his eye, someone caught him by the throat and pushed him back into the chair, fastening a collar-like restraint to keep him from moving.

With a growing feeling of dread, Howell realised the back of the chair only went up to his neck. He looked up to see it was Sophie buckling him into the collar. Just Sophie this time, the expression on her lovely young face almost beatific as she completed her task.

"Time to switch!" Calcifer called, and everyone else changed seats except Sophie, who stayed beside Howell's chair and folded her hands, smiling sweetly. Even Ben changed teapots. Howell's eyes were inexplicably riveted to the sight of his delicate little hound's feet tip-toeing across the dubiously-stained tablecloth.

The sense memory of Violet taking measurements of his head while he slept returned to him, and Howell knew he was about to be decapitated.

"Off with his head!" the Witch's voice repeated just out of sight, unnecessarily. "Off with his head!" She sounded like a cassette recording.

"I love you, Howell Jenkins," Sophie sighed, sliding into his lap and taking his face in her hands. But she wasn't Sophie any longer. She was Miss Angorian. As she leaned in to kiss him, Howell felt the cold steel of the axe bite into his throat.

He awoke in a cold sweat, struggling to keep down his lunch. Fortunately, upon waking Howell could not remember much of what he'd dreamed, just that it had involved the Witch and her fire demon, and some hallucinogenic references to Lewis Carroll. He groaned. Fever dreams were just an added bonus to being ill.

Now he was even more determined to get Sophie up to his room. Howell had no desire to be alone all of a sudden. So he tried moaning again in pain, a bit louder. Nothing. He executed a loud, hollow-sounding cough that would have made any mother come running. But Sophie was not a mother, after all. Howell tried sneezing. Still naught. He blew his nose, not just to get her attention, but because he needed it. He did magically enhance the volume, however. Yet there was no sound of Sophie stirring downstairs. Perhaps she had fallen asleep in her chair.

Howell was determined to wake her up. He performed a sound spell to recreate all of the noises he had just made in a repetitive loop which became louder each time, and sped up so that the sounds began to overlap one another. Like the odious alarm clock of his roommate at university, this could not possibly let her sleep for long. To add his own melodramatic flair and perhaps an extra bit of guilt for ignoring him, Howell took up a litany of exhausted wailing, like a child who has nearly cried himself out. He laid his wrist to his forehead like an abandoned damsel in distress, noticing he still had a fever. Perhaps Sophie would come upstairs with a nice, hot argument and help him sweat it out of his system.

But when the sounds went on for so long and became so loud that the house was beginning to tremble with the noise and there was still no sign of Sophie, Howell wondered if he had underestimated her hard-heartedness. She had wished this cold on him, after all.

Finally he heard her muttering irritably to herself downstairs, and then the glorious sound of two feet and a stick hobbling up the stairs. "Really, these wizards!" she grumbled for his benefit as Sophie reached the top of the stairs. "You'd think no one had ever had a cold before!" Howell thought that was easy to say when you were not the one struggling to breathe around the flem in your chest.

To get her back, he decided to play a game with her—and with himself. If Howell could manage to keep her attention on himself the entire time she was in his room so that Sophie did not notice his window to Wales, he would steal a kiss from her as soon as he was well. If however, Sophie noticed the window…well, she would not notice. Howell was nothing if not distracting—even his fashion-criticising nephew would have agreed with that.

Presently, Sophie appeared in the doorway and hobbled in only a step or two. "Well, what is it?" she asked, rudely. Howell decided to forgive her. She had come upstairs, after all.

"I'm dying of boredom," he whined like the pathetic ten-year-old he felt. When this did not elicit a response from her, he made a tragic face and added, "Or maybe just dying."

He must have looked as bad as he felt, and for once Howell did not mind, for Sophie took a long look at him and her expression softened to one of concern. She hobbled over to the bedside and reached out to lay a soft, wrinkly palm on his forehead.

Howell's chest felt strange. He wondered if Sophie realised this was the first time she'd touched him of her own accord. The time previous it had been merely treating him as an object to be cleaned, when she and Michael had been scrubbing the slime off him. "You do have a bit of a fever," she said, taking her hand away.

Howell could not resist playing up to her concern. "I'm delirious," he moaned. "Spots are crawling before my eyes."

"Those are spiders," she snapped, not falling for it. "Why can't you cure yourself with a spell?"

She seemed in such a hurry to get back downstairs to her sewing. Howell was not about to let her, not to mention he was put out with her for not feeling sorry for him anymore. "Because there is no cure for a cold," he told her, testily. And then, because he really was somewhat delirious, Howell began to babble at her in a stream-of-consciousness manner.

"Things are going round and round in my head—or maybe my head is going round and round in things." Apparently, Lewis Carroll had not yet done with his mind. Talking about his head nearly triggered a memory of his dream, but it was gone before Howell could properly fix on it, and just as well. "I keep thinking of the terms of the Witch's curse," he went on, admitting the rest only because he was so ill and not quite conscious of what he was saying. "I hadn't realised she could lay me bare like that."

And that was something he'd been avoiding thinking of ever since the curse had taken hold of him. It was one of the most brilliant executions of a curse Howell had ever heard of, much less witnessed first-hand. It was so well-fitted to the victim, and seeped in through nearly all the chinks in his armour so that he may as well not have been wearing any at all.

He supposed he deserved that, having opened himself at all to a lover who was a powerful witch. She had used everything she could against him, including his own family. "It's a bad thing to be laid bare," he went on, depressed, "even though the things that are true so far are all my own doing."

And that was the worst part. It was as if he'd cursed himself. "I keep waiting for the rest to happen." Howell felt almost resigned.

Sophie seemed to consider this. "What things? 'Tell me where all past years are?'"

As if that were the hard bit. "Oh, I know that," he replied, assured that she was still too busy puzzling it out to notice the window view. "My own, or anyone else's."

So often, when approached from a magical perspective, silly philosophical questions had very simple answers. Philosophy was all well and good for sitting around discussing with your mates in an attempt to looking brilliant for the ladies at hand, but in truth it had always seemed to Howell philosophers asked only the silliest questions with the most obvious answers. But perhaps that was merely his genius magician's mind at work.

"They're all there, just where they always were. I could go and play bad fairy at my own christening, if I wanted." Howell realised after the fact what an unfortunate metaphor he'd chosen, as Neil's words came back to him. He supposed comparing himself to either Thornrose or the bad fairy were not exactly flattering to his masculinity.

"Maybe I did, and that's my trouble," he finished, glumly, switching gears. It was the sort of dramatic appearance and performance that would appeal to Howell, actually. He hoped he had not done it to himself in the future in the midst of some sort of midlife crisis.

From the look on her face, Howell could see he would have to explain to Sophie what he meant before she went on guessing lines of the poem to see which one it was. After all, he wasn't allowed to talk about the first. "No, there are only three things I'm waiting for: the mermaids, the mandrake root, and the wind to advance an honest mind." And he added, as an afterthought, "And whether I get white hairs, I suppose, only I'm not going to take the spell off to see."

Howell would be damned if she robbed him of his vanity as well as everything else. He was not about to stand for being turned into a senior citizen as Sophie had done. As he spoke, Howell did the figures in his head, fitting the curse in time she could reckon. "There's only about three weeks left for them to come true in, and the Witch gets me as soon as they do." Howell was gratified to see Sophie's expression change to one of worry out the corner of his eye. "But the Rugby Club Reunion is Midsummer Eve, so I shall get to that, at least." His old school chums would not see him brought low. "The rest had all happened long ago."

Sophie cut into his thinking aloud, asking just the things he had been trying to prevent her asking. "You mean the falling star and never being able to find a woman true and fair?" Howell was thinking of the best way to distract her onto a different topic, when Sophie's jealousy pushed her onto a tangent without his help. "I'm not surprised, the way you go on. Mrs. Pentstemmon told me you were going to the bad. She was right, wasn't she?"

It hurt Howell to hear Mrs. Pentstemmon had finally seen to his black, worthless inner core and had warned Sophie against him. So that was why she had sent him from the room. He could only hope her last thoughts of him had not all been of this ilk.

Then again, perhaps it was just what he deserved. "I must go to her funeral if it kills me." He owed her that much after everything she'd done for him. Not to mention it was his fault she'd been killed. Perhaps Mrs. Pentstemmon had finally realised what sort of man he was, only too late. "Mrs. Pentstemmon always thought far too well of me," Howell mused, overcome with so many fond memories of her encouragements of him when he had just been starting out, all the difficult times he'd had those last years of secondary after his father died. She'd looked for the good in him when Howell was half-tempted himself to give up on his education and do whatever it took to get by on his own.

Suddenly it seemed Mrs. Pentstemmon had taught him every good thing Howell knew. "I blinded her with my charm." She had liked him from the beginning, when all he had were some poorly-constructed lies and his good looks--which were not so very good back then.

Howell did not know whether it was everything coming down on him at once, or some mental weakness prompted by his illness, but he genuinely began to cry. Mrs. Pentstemmon was gone; the only woman apart from his mother who'd ever believed in him in spite of himself. Even Howell didn't believe in himself.

His tears seemed unable, however, to evoke any sympathy from Sophie. "I was talking about the way you keep dropping ladies as soon as you've made them love you," she said, sternly, her tone reminding him of Miss Angorian in a way he did not like at all. "Why do you do it?" she asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

Motivation he could answer easily enough. Howell pointed to the spiders busily spinning over his head. "That's why I love spiders. 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.'" Far too many faces from his past were summoned up by the words. None of them had worked out, and most of them he'd treated quite badly. He remembered Mrs. Pentstemmon's words to him two days ago and felt duly ashamed of himself. Perhaps it was the way Sophie was looking at him, as well.

"I keep trying," he went on, "But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago." All the same, he did not regret it. Howell could admit he was selfish and wish the consequences to himself and his own future had not been so severe, but he would not have traded Calcifer for having his heart back, though without it his chances of success were practically nil. "And I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now," he finished, scrubbing half-heartedly at his eyes with the lace cuff of his nightgown.

All he could see of Sophie through the tears was a blur, but it bent over him and half reached out, as if uncertain what to do at the sight of a grown man crying. "Now, you mustn't cry--" Her attempt at comfort was derailed as she heard a noise in the hall. Was Michael back already? Howell hadn't felt him pass through the wards again. Something knee-high came into the room, and Howell blinked the tears away to see better. Sophie bent down, apparently unafraid of whatever it was, and was soon backed against the far wall, dashing Howell's hopes of receiving a bit of maternal comfort from her.

"What's this?" he asked, blinking in confusion at an Irish Setter which stared balefully back at him from where it leaned against Sophie's legs.

"My new dog," she told him, looking guilty. Sophie was one of the worst liars in the history of time. But Howell could not tell precisely what she was lying about this time. Perhaps she was attempting to protect Michael. But Howell would have thought Michael would have said something to him if he'd taken in a stray. Michael used to be good about things like that. Perhaps his encroaching adolescence was making him more and more dishonest. Howell supposed he only had himself to blame for setting a bad example on that account.

As he was working this out, Sophie went strangely quiet. Too late, Howell saw she had finally noticed the window. Damn. And he'd been doing so well, too. He might have been able to play it off, but just as he was thinking of a topic to distract her, Mari came running out of the house followed by Megan, to play on the swing set. "Is that the place called Wales?" Sophie asked, rather needlessly.

Caught, all Howell could do was laugh and beat the covers in frustration. He'd been so close! "Bother that dog!" Howell swore, his voice sounding more like Sophie's brittle crackle than his own. "I had a bet on with myself that I could keep you from snooping out of the window all the time you were in here!" In its defense, the dog looked back at him almost apologetically.

"Did you now?" Sophie glowered at him and let go of the dog's coat very deliberately, as if she expected something to happen. Nothing did. The dog seemed determined not to leave the room unless she went with it. Howell did not like that much.

But from the look on Sophie's face, he wasn't sure he could endure her wrath if she stayed, either. "So all that song and dance was just a game, was it?"

Howell's face fell. This sort of thing was why he did not like to tell the truth. Now he'd lost her sympathy all together - what little of it he'd secured - merely because he'd admitted to having had some fun with her. Perhaps she thought he was the sort of actor who could cry on cue. Howell was a good liar and an excellent actor, but he could, in fact, not.; one of the downsides to having no heart. He saw it was no good trying to explain that to Sophie, however.

"I might have known!" And there it was, proof of her faithlessness in him. She did not seem to expect anything of Howell but lies and insincerity. He fell back onto his pillows, looking hurt.

Why was it only all or nothing with these women? Couldn't they see the world wasn't black and white, but many many shades of grey? Just because he enjoyed a good prank did not mean he was incapable of being serious. Just because he lied well and often did not mean he never told the truth. Not to mention every liar knew the best lie revolved around a very solid truth.

But these innocent holier-than-thous who pretended to avoid lies on moral principle did not seem to understand that. He supposed he could not have expected it from a terrible liar like Sophie. "Sometimes you sound just like Megan," he told her, knowing what a great insult it was and feeling too petty just now to care.

Howell wondered again if he could stomach living with a Megan-clone for the rest of his life. Even one who was a strawberry blond bombshell.

"Sometimes I understand how Megan got to be the way she is!" Sophie shot back, apparently understanding quite well that she'd just been insulted. She took her dog and left, slamming the door hard enough to knock several precariously balanced books from the shelf. Howell was left to himself and his self-pity. He watched Mari playing on the swing set and dabbed at his teary eyes in silence.

When Neil came out to complain his after school snack wasn't ready yet and Megan finally dragged his niece back inside, Howell cast about for something else to do. He wondered if he should apologise to Sophie for playing a trick on her. But no, he didn't feel he should have to. It hadn't worked, after all, and he'd confessed it quite plainly. Why did she have to take everything as an offense?

Howell could just imagine her on their wedding night, slapping his hands away because she felt he was being inappropriate. What a miserable honeymoon that would be…